POTTSVILLE – It will go down in the annals of Lebanon County sports history as one of the best seasons ever. It will also go down as the finest local season not to produce a state championship.
On Wednesday night at Pottsville’s Martz Hall, in a second-round game of the PIAA tournament, the Palmyra girls’ basketball team’s magical campaign reached an abrupt, surprising and unfullfilling climax, with a 40-36 loss to Scranton Prep. Though the Cougars didn’t play poorly, it certainly wasn’t their best performance of the year.
Struggling to generate points from its halfcourt offense, the Cougars fell into a double-digit hole in the opening period. And despite playing their usual sticky man-to-man defense, Palmyra did not create its normal complement of turnovers and transition baskets.
29-1. That’s the mark with which the District Three Class AAA, Mid-Penn Conference and Keystone Division champions ended their season. Scranton Prep, the runner-up from District Two improved to 27-2 on the year.
“I would say since we were 20-0, we played each game knowing we were going to lose some time,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman, of the impending post-locker room speech he was about to make to his girls. “I’m going to talk about what we accomplished, the championships we won. It’ll be a positive talk, if I don’t cry.
“They’re such fantastic kids, students,” Berman continued. “It’s been the perfect storm. Everything came together for us. It was just a tremendous ride for us. It’s just a shame it had to end.”
After trailing by as many as 12 points in the first half, the Cougars closed to within a possession of Scranton Prep on a number of occasions in the second half, but could never quite get over the hump to take the lead. Two charity tosses from Kristen Smoluk with 3:18 to go moved Palmyra to within 37-34, and a jumper from Kate Carmo with 1:08 pulled Palmyra to within 39-36.
Scranton Prep did its part by missing three free throws in the final 1:23, but because of turnovers, the Cougars could not take advantage of them.
“It’s hard to get behind by ten points in a state playoff game,” said Berman. “It takes a lot of energy to get back. But again, we fought back and got within a possession. I thought we were fresh in the fourth quarter.
“They’re (Scranton Prep) a little bigger, a little faster than they were on tape,” Berman added. “We tried to continue to box out. Sometimes the ball just bounces a different way.
“They’re really good. They’re too good of a team to come back on. Twenty-five (Tricia Byrne) is a heck of a player.”
Down just 24-21 at the break, Palmyra appeared it might have the momentum coming out of the locker room. But instead it was Scranton Prep which notched eight of the first 11 points in the third quarter to open a 32-24 margin.
But behind five points from reserve spark plug Maria Tukis, the Cougars closed to 32-29 before the stanza ended. And when Carly Richardson stroked a three-point field goal three minutes into the fourth, it was a 34-32 game.
“I thought we attacked it very well,” said Berman of Scranton Prep’s match-up zone defense. “We just didn’t make shots, and we didn’t get fouled. But I thought we attacked it well. They’re a really good team. I just wish we could’ve gotten the lead at some point.
“Part of that problem (not scoring easy baskets) was we couldn’t get out as quick as we like to,” continued Berman. “We had to work hard not to give up a second shot. It was a combination of those things. They made a few more plays than us.”
With 12 points off the bench, Tukis led all Palmyra scorers, while leading scorer Richardson was limited to nine points. Palmyra, which went 13-for-18 at the foul line, netted just seven two-point baskets throughout.
“Maria gives us so much energy off the bench,” said Berman of Tukis. “She hustles completely, 100 percent. If there’s a play to be made, she’s going to make it.
“They were playing a match-up zone and always had someone on Carly,” added Berman. “They were closing down on her. They obviously scouted us and knew she was our best shooter.”
In the opening period, Scranton Prep led 16-5, 20-8 and 22-11. But courtesy of five points from Tukis and a three-pointer by Gabi Gundermann, the Cougars rattled off eight unanswered points to get within 22-19.
And when Kate Carmo scored on a driving lay-in six seconds before the intermission, Palmyra was only down 24-21.
“We kept talking about, ‘We can come back,'” said Berman. “We kept reminding them of the Eastern York game. They fought hard, and that’s all I could ask of them, except for a win. We told them, ‘play your hearts out and enjoy the journey as long as you can.’
“It was just an incredible season,” Berman continued. “We won the Keystone championship. We won the Mid-Penn championship. We won the district championship. No we didn’t bring home more, but I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
SP’s Byrne, a tough-as-nails guard, led all scorers with 16 points, while teammate Olivia Burke netted 11.
“We didn’t get the type of officiated game we needed to win this type of game,” said Berman. “It was too physical out there. I think you officiate the way the game is played, not to let the players decide it. One of the officials told me, ‘We’re letting them go both ways.’ And I told her I wanted the fouls called.
“We went inside and didn’t get rewarded,” Berman added. “But I thought the kids continued to take the ball to the basket.”